When the Federal Communications Commission crafted rules for enhanced 911 services for mobile phones in 1996, it also required wireless carriers, for safety reasons, to transmit all wireless 911 calls — regardless of whether the phone dialing 911 has a service contract attached to it.

The practice, however, has turned into a nightmare for the nation's public-safety answering points (PSAPs). Fraudsters have figured out that these non-initialized phones can be used to dial 911 as long as the devices have a working battery. The phones can't be traced because they aren't connected to any service provider and therefore don't provide public safety with automatic number identification (ANI) and callback features. Such calls are clogging up the nation's 911 systems.

Various surveys of PSAPs show the extent of the problem. In 2006, PSAPs in Tennessee reported more than 10,000 fraudulent 911 calls from non-initialized phones in a period of three months. In Florida, several PSAPs reported about 8400 fraudulent calls from such phones in just one month.

There are many reasons for why these calls are being made, the experts say. Some people simply like to send police and fire personnel on wild goose chases. Others enjoy the mayhem they create when they waste 911 call-takers' time.

Many of these calls are from repeat callers, and a surprising number are from children. Parents and grandparents sometimes place older wireless phones in the hands of children as pseudo toys. When they do, the kids sometimes dial 911 by accident. When they discover that the call actually went through, they keep dialing. The fact that the call can't be traced is another motivating factor.

One PSAP in Maury County, Tenn., reported several instances of children making harassing 911 calls from non-initialized handsets. One child called the PSAP 84 times on a Saturday night, nearly immobilizing the PSAP's ability to respond to real emergencies.

According to Richard Taylor, president of the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), the number of fraudulent calls from non-initialized handsets may be even higher than those reported because it's difficult for PSAPs to track these calls when they are dealing with real emergencies. But everyone in the 911 sector agrees that these calls pose a significant problem, he said.

“Most of the percentages I've seen show that less than 3% of calls coming from these phones are legitimate,” Taylor said. “That leads to the question: What is the purpose of allowing these calls?”

A complicated problem

That's the question the nation's emergency call-takers are asking the FCC. The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, which has seen a significant number of fraudulent calls from non-initialized phones, along with the National Emergency Number Association, NASNA, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials — as well as a handful of other state-run 911 programs — earlier this year petitioned the FCC to find a solution to the problem. Proposals include stopping the practice altogether, or allowing PSAPs and wireless carriers more leeway in blocking these calls. In April, the FCC issued a notice seeking input on possible solutions.

Back in 2002, the commission decided that wireless carriers could block fraudulent calls from non-initialized phones, but public-safety officials say the carriers have not been prepared to do so when requested. Part of the reticence stems from the carriers' fear of liability exposure. Additionally, PSAPs and carriers both question what state and local law enforcement procedures would be required to institute a block on such calls.

“Liability hits everyone, which is why we need some national guidance and legislation,” said Lynn Questell, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. “The FCC's orders have said that the 911 call centers working with the cell phone companies can block the call. But our point is: What do you mean by block? … There is no real organized process for dealing with this.”

Indeed, it appears to be hit or miss for PSAPs when it comes to getting carriers to block these problem calls. Some carriers say they simply can't do it, while some PSAPs have been able to find engineering allies within carriers' organizations willing to block calls from certain locations.

In Michigan, for instance, the consolidated PSAP Mason-Oceana 911 cites one frustrating instance when harassing calls came from the same non-initialized handset for an entire year. According to a memo from Director Rich Feole, dispatchers were never able to pinpoint the location of the phone, although he eventually identified the manufacturer of the phone. That led to the discovery that Alltel sold the device, but the carrier refused to block calls from the phone to the PSAP, Feole said. Eventually, the calls stopped.

According to one unnamed carrier — which requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the problem — to get a carrier to block allegedly fraudulent 911 calls, a PSAP must contact the carrier's corporate security department and provide documentation of the harassing calls. Should the carrier decide to comply with the request, it would block the calls based on the telephone number and the electronic serial number (ESN) in the switch that serves a particular PSAP. The problem, however, occurs when non-initialized phone calls come into a PSAP without an ESN, which is most often the case. PSAPs are usually out of luck then.

“We have blocked, but rarely,” said Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. “Obviously this is a complicated process that is extraordinarily time-consuming and resource-draining, but also raises questions about legality. We believe the FCC should require the PSAP to be responsible for blocking, rather than putting wireless companies in the position of judging when this needs to occur.”

That is the position the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) is taking on the matter. In its reply comments to the FCC, CTIA said it opposes any regulation that would require carriers to block these types of calls and said PSAPs are in a better position to do so.

“PSAP blocking solutions could be implemented without requiring changes to the commission rules, thereby allowing all devices in the hands of the public to continue to reach 911,” CTIA said in its filing. “In addition, PSAPs could perform blocking irrespective of the forwarding network and eliminate the burdensome, time-consuming carrier-coordination process.”

NENA and other 911 organizations don't have a problem with PSAPs taking on the responsibility of blocking calls.

“I agree with CTIA,” said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for NENA. “It's logical that PSAPs should do it if the technology is available — and it is available — and if the FCC allows the PSAP to block these calls. But there is a liability concern that does have to be addressed.”

Technology to the rescue

A number of technology companies have already filed with the FCC indicating they have developed technology that enables PSAPs to block fraudulent 911 calls. One such filing has come from TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), a dominant provider of wireless and VoIP E911 services, which says it has a patent-pending approach that would enable PSAPs, or wireless carriers for that matter, to block fraudulent calls without upgrading their infrastructure.

TCS is developing software that can track a phone's ESN, regardless of whether it is from a non-initialized device, said Dick Dickenson, senior director of public safety with TCS. The PSAP would simply notify TCS of the harassing call and identify the time it was made. TCS then would use the software to query its call database and block all future calls coming from the ESN.

“Every time that ESN shows up, we can redirect the call to a voice recording that explains to the caller they have been blocked due to harassment and that they can restore 911 capabilities by contacting the police. Then the call drops,” Dickenson said. “We can also put timers on it so that calls may be redirected for 48 hours but then 911 service is restored since the phone might be used for legitimate reasons.”

With all of the headaches stemming from harassing 911 calls from non-initialized devices, some wonder whether the FCC should stop mandating that such calls from these phones go through. When the FCC made this requirement more than a decade ago, the proliferation of mobile devices was significantly lower.

Early on, carriers and other organizations donated non-initialized handsets to charity organizations such as battered women's shelters so that they could call 911 in an emergency. Today, virtually everyone can afford a wireless device, even if it's only a pay-as-you-go phone. However, for those who can't, CTIA's donation initiatives — as well as other carrier-driven initiatives such as Verizon Wireless' Hopeline — donate initialized devices with phone numbers and airtime.

Still, the 911 community realizes legitimate emergencies are called in from non-initialized phones, even if they represent a small percentage. And carriers point out that initialized handsets could falsely be identified as non-initialized devices if the user turns on a phone and makes a 911 call before the phone has registered with the wireless network.

“It's an excellent debate over whether 911 should be turned off completely,” Taylor said. “The hard-core side says yes as they serve no real purpose in the greater scheme of things, but I think no one wants to see these phones cut off. However, we certainly can't keep with the status quo.”

Others, including CTIA, are advocating an educational approach that reminds people through public-service announcements that calling 911 for any reason besides an emergency is criminal, and that children shouldn't be given a working phone even if a service contract isn't tied to it. What worries some 911 officials, however, is that this type of information may actually empower the fraudsters.

At any rate, NENA and other public-safety groups are advocating the formation of a working group that would meet for a limited duration, about three months, to address many of these issues and make recommendations to the FCC. What is clear is that the problem needs to be addressed at a nationwide level, and both carriers and PSAPs need to be assured they will be free from liability with any decision that is made.

“We're not moving toward a solution unless the FCC takes the bull by the horns,” Questell said. “I feel confident they are taking this issue seriously. … Getting this resolved will be the most important thing I do in my job.”

REPEAT CALLERS USING NON-INITIALIZED HANDSETS

From 40 counties in Tennessee, Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2006

Category Repeat callers
Other* 3703
Bogus 28
Threat 8
Child 540
Total 4279
“Other” includes hang-ups, accidental dials and all other calls not covered by the specific categories.

Percentage of total NSI-device 911 calls from repeat callers:
41.7

Source: Tennessee Emergency Communications Board

NON-SERVICE INITIATED 911 CALLS

In Tennessee, 40 of 95 counties kept records between Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2006.

Category NSI calls Percentage
Other* 9283 90.5%
Bogus 50 0.5%
Threatening 10 0.1%
Child 731 7.1%
Legitimate 188 1.8%
Total 10,262
“Other” includes hang-ups, accidental dials and all other calls not covered by the specific categories.

Source: Tennessee Emergency Communications Board